If you’re going to write a lazy headline, don’t bother writing a post. Seem harsh? It’s not. Not only are descriptive and accurate headlines important for SEO (search engine optimization), they’re also the first information that your potential audience is going to see.
Where Do Readers See Headlines?
Take a look at these results from Google. What’s the larger piece of information for each entry? The post headline. Bot or human, that’s the information your eye is going to pay the most attention to.
If someone has subscribed to your blog, well done! That probably means, however, that they’re reading your blog in a feed reader that pulls all of their favorite content together and puts it in one place. Unless all of your readers are under a pathological compulsion to read everything put in front of them, this means that you have to compete with every other blog they love best. And what is the most salient piece of information you have to compete with?
You got it: headlines.
When your readers start sharing content on social media, guess what information is going to show up on Facebook automatically? Headlines. What piece of information are they most likely to quote on Twitter? Headlines. What’s going to show up in bright blue in the middle of a Google+ post? Guess headlines again? Watch out, ladies and gents, we’ve got a sharp one.
In short: the internet LOVES headlines. The internet is so in love with headlines that when someone said, “Why don’t you marry them then?,” the internet said, “That’s a brilliant idea!” They’ll be celebrating their tenth anniversary next year and are expecting their third child.
In all seriousness, though, headlines are important, so slapping off a lazy description of your post and calling it a headline is not going to help your writing stand out from the 233,000,000 other entries Google pulls up on your topic. Write your headline after your post is complete and take some time with it: your content will thank you.
What Makes Readers Take Notice?
It’s no lie: attention spans on the internet can be capital-S Short. Which headline would you pay more attention to if you were browsing the internet?
New Research Shows That Consuming X Grams of Monounsaturated Fat Per Day Can Benefit Patients At Higher Risk For Hereditary Heart Disease
Protect Your Heart: Eat Fat
Do they convey the exact same information? Not quite. Is the shorter title somewhat misleading? A bit, sure. Is it a lie? No. By cramming the gist of the longer headline into less words, you’re almost inevitable going to end up with a headline that leaves a reader wanting more. And that’s a good thing.
Psychology has a valuable lesson for us here: when there’s a gap between what people know and what they want to know, they’ll seek to fill it. The best thing a headline can do is leave a reader wanting to know more. Which of these headlines is more likely to get clicked?
African Elephants Mate for Life
Do Elephants Have Soulmates?
The almost spiritual tone of the word “soulmates” might not be the right choice if you’re trying to attract a community of professional zoologists. If you’re writing a blog for a zoo and you want to draw the attention of more possible visitors, the added mystery might just serve you well.
Bribe Your Readers
I’m not saying that every post headline needs to be backed up by a giveaway or contest. Far from it, although those are useful attention grabbers. But every single headline does need to promise the reader, “If you click this link and spend time on my site, I will give you information that’s worth your time.” Take for example:
Tax Preparation at Home
Easy, Money-Saving Tax Prep Tips
In this case, a little length is okay, because it gives you room to create that mystery and the promise of useful information. Who cares about tax preparation? Maybe a few people. Who cares about being able to save money easily? Probably a few more.
And Again…Feed the Trolls
We talked about this idea in Being Human: people respond to controversy. If your headline affronts something they believe or care about, they’ll have an emotional motivation to click through the headline if for no other reason than to yell at you for being an idiot. That’s okay; if you never have people yelling at you for being an idiot, you’re doing the internet wrong. For instance:
The Ups and Downs of Green Energy
Stop Buying into the Lies of Green Energy
Both promise valuable information in a concise space. The second does two things better: (1) it creates a wonder. “What are those lies I’ve been buying into?” the reader might think. (2) It accuses a popular trend of being about as trustworthy as your readers might find the lobbyists for big oil to be. If attacking renewable energy doesn’t get your audience engaged, then either all the environmentalists have been replaced by bodysnatchers or you’re not writing for your actual audience.
Unfortunately, there is no bottom line for writing a perfect headline. Headlines are very content and audience-specific, and we could probably get a graduate thesis out of how to procure clickthroughs for specific content by writing context-appropriate headlines. If, however, you (a) are a person, (b) ask yourself, “Would I click on that headline if I was researching the topic?”, (c) take a few minutes instead of a few seconds to think about the headline, and (d) write your headline last, you’ll end up writing better headlines and doing your content a substantial favor.